Thursday, Oct 06, 2022

This used to be me

Kusum yadav and her five sisters — Madhavi,Suman,Aruna,Shalini and Nalini — were born between 1935 and 1946 and lived in Raja Mandi,Agra.

In photo studios and on personal computers,our memories get edited — the light is made sharper,and the blemish ironed out. Years later,will you wonder: is this how we were?

Kusum yadav and her five sisters — Madhavi,Suman,Aruna,Shalini and Nalini — were born between 1935 and 1946 and lived in Raja Mandi,Agra. All of them went on to complete their graduation — a milestone summed up in the kind of photographs that once graced the walls of hundreds of Indian homes. Each sat in a studio,graduation degree rolled in her hand,hesitation on her face,looking everywhere but at the camera — as if willing a mask of primness on her giggling,carefree 20-something self. This was the essential studio photo,which would also be used as a matrimonial picture. It now seems to be a ticket to a time long gone,when Photoshop wasn’t in the picture.

“These photographs tell us family stories that we have forgotten. They help us to remember where we came from,” says documentary photographer Anusha S Yadav,who also runs the Indian Memory project,an online archive of old photographs of Indian families. Her mother Shalini was one of the six Yadav sisters.

We all have memories like Yadav’s tucked away in old family albums — pictures of our unpolished,gawky selves clumped together in cardboard boxes. Our unedited memories.

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Where everyone looked at the camera in a particular way,and taking a photograph was an event. And when every family posed together; there were few single shots unless it was a matrimonial picture. Even a child’s birthday party from the Eighties had an innocent gaucherie. The birthday candles flickered as children stood frozen and smiled. The children looked like children,no auto contrast to wipe away stray shadows from their tiny faces,no cloning tool to multiply the roses on the cake. They had playground grime under their finger nails and red smudges on their cheek,nothing was removed or touched up. And everyone held their breath till the flash popped.

There are no rituals now before we take a picture — it’s simply a matter of whipping out a phone and pressing a button — and any imperfections are ironed out in no time. Decades later,the photographs that we take today and upload on our virtual playgrounds,after the instant cosmetic surgery of Photoshop,will be part of some other memory project. But will they have been edited too much? Will you wonder when you pore through those slick images — is this what we were? “Photos today are a form of self-validation. The intent of taking a picture is now different,” says Yadav. “The emphasis on looking good is high. It is no longer about just capturing the moment. It is now for personal satisfaction,to preserve our youth,” she says.

Showing us some of his own family pictures dating back to the 1930s is Pavan Mehta,managing partner of Mahatta & Co. Studio,one of Delhi’s oldest studios. Mehta flips through the Mahatta family album,which turns from crisp black-and-white to Eastman colour as the family gets younger. In the background is the constant rattle of a colour printer ejecting hundreds of digital colour photographs. The pictures which we now cherish as old classics were also retouched,he says. “We always tweaked them a bit to soften tones,to make sure the filters used were right. Earlier,there was a mystery attached to taking a picture. If I took a picture back then,I had to wait for a week,to see how it has turned out. That mystery is now gone. If there is something wrong with the picture,it is now corrected,” he says.


Tweaking takes on a new meaning when you see a recent wedding picture,a simple shot of the bride surrounded by her family. A portly aunt is reaching out to give the bride her blessings,her other hand holding her saree pallu. “This cannot be done. Dabaa do (tone it down). Haath ko slim kar do,” is the instruction. The arm is sliced off. A small white blob that has been removed floats for a while on the screen,as the slimmer arm is aligned to the body. Then a click later,there is no sign of any fat people in the photograph. This almost surgical procedure takes place at Studio Prem in north Delhi,where the pitch-black of the dark room has been replaced by the glow of Macbook Pro screens in the editing room. “You have to change with the times. So we have moved on too. We take pictures but we tweak them as per the customer’s choice,” says Umesh Sabharwal,managing director,Studio Prem.

“People want to look good all the time. Each and every wedding photograph is touched up by at least five production people. The first person fixes the lighting,the other checks for face and skin evenness,and,in this way,every flaw is ironed out,” says Sabharwal. Even politicians who come to his studio for their portraits are made to look “sweet and smart”.

One of the many successful products at Studio Prem is the matrimonial “folder” of a girl,with all her vital statistics lined up. Sabharwal tells us to observe closely. “She is sitting in different positions,in casuals,in formals,and she looks confident,” he says,pointing to the flawless skin and the soft brown highlights in the prospective bride’s hair. “Earlier,in the Seventies and the Eighties,the girl was brought in like a ‘cow’ and asked to sit in a chair and pose.


Today,the girl wants to show attitude and confidence. No one wants to just sit,” says Sabharwal.

Even children. Krishna Soni,a chemical manufacturer from west Delhi,his wife Shilpa and seven-month-old daughter,Ananya,arrive at the studio to click a picture. Sabharwal shows them photographs of other children — life-size framed images of cherubs with light make-up. Ananya takes the studio floor,cradled by her parents. Sabharwal tells them to be “relaxed” and then tells his photographer to “take chance”. The light pops and the child starts bawling. An image is quickly deleted and Ananya is readied for her next shot. The photo studio looks like a surrealist landscape — with a guitar,the half-arch of a balcony,a brick wall,a trumpet and an umbrella lined up. Teddy bears and fluffy rabbits are brought out to cheer Ananya. But the biggest prop will be used only in post-production. A soft glow to remind her how angelic she used to be. An edited memory.

First published on: 17-04-2011 at 11:43:45 pm
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